By Ella Mireles
When I moved from my Professional Learning Community (PLC) school to a new school in a new town, I expected the same kind of environment. I quickly learned, however, that PLCs are not practiced everywhere. It was difficult to move from a place of collaboration, trust, and growth to a place of isolation and stagnancy. Research in the 1970s conducted by sociologist Dan Lortie found that “schools are widely defined by a culture of individualism” (Lortie, 1975). Unfortunately, this notion still rings true today (Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, 2013). But schools can easily change with the implementation of PLCs.
PLCs help shift the focus from “teaching in the classroom to learning in the classroom” (Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, 2013). Teachers, administrators, and support staff discuss, share, and learn from one another in order to provide learning opportunities for both the teachers and the students. Together, they put steps in motion to produce an environment of positive collaboration. This builds trust among colleagues and provides opportunities for learning new strategies and sharing new ideas and resources. According to an article in Teacher College Record, “Schools with higher levels of teacher collaboration are associated with stronger student performance” (Goddard, Y., Goddard, R., & Tschannen-Moran, M., 2007).
Although PLCs require time to implement, there are easy ways to get the collaboration going. The first step is to open up communication with colleagues so everyone feels safe sharing ideas, fears, and concerns. Consider the following steps, based on my experiences, as a guide to help you begin the process of creating a PLC.
Establishing norms ensures that each person will have an opportunity to share and discuss ideas and ask questions during PLC meetings. Even a small group discussion can be chaotic when multiple people are trying to comment at the same time. Having norms in place will help to structure meetings. Norms—or rules—should be determined collaboratively at the first meeting and agreed upon by the team. Here are some norms to consider: turn cell phones off, speak positively, offer solutions, stay on topic, be prepared, and participate. However, an excessive number of norms can be discouraging. It is a good idea to have a maximum of five. Norms should not be set in stone—they should be revisited and revised as the needs of the team change. Meetings should begin with an overview of the norms so the environment remains constructive instead of critical or competitive. Establishing norms fosters respect among team members.
Outline a Team Agenda
Having a well-planned team agenda outlined before all meetings will make collaborating easier. Team members can add items to the agenda before a meeting takes place in order to ensure that sufficient time is allotted for each topic. Each team member should have a copy of the agenda to take notes on and refer back to as needed. I suggest adding the norms to the agenda to serve as a reminder during each meeting. After the norms are read, the team can begin the meeting by sharing general information and then delving into other topics such as teaching strategies, obstacles in the classroom, concerns, and data. In addition, team members can share student work samples and offer relevant ideas and resources. After each meeting, the team should have an opportunity to discuss important and pertinent questions. If the questions cannot be answered within the team, they should be written down on the agenda and given to administration and/or other campus members for feedback. Feedback should be received within one week of the meeting so that it can be shared with colleagues at the next meeting.
Foster Team Collaboration
Teachers often feel that they need an outlet for their frustrations in the classroom. Frustrations can be caused by a range of issues, from disciplinary problems to struggles with routine implementation to instructional difficulties. Having reflective conversations with team members provides a positive way to improve teacher practices and approaches to challenging situations. For example, the group may discuss new ways to teach by sharing instructional experiences that have had a positive impact on learning. Team members can also take part in professional development activities and then share the ideas and resources they learned with one another. This allows teachers to continue to grow professionally by learning from their colleagues and finding ways to take what they learned and make it work in their own classrooms to meet their students’ needs. All teachers must continue to learn in order to provide effective and productive classroom practices, and PLCs provide the collaborative environment in which to do so.
Although these recommendations are based on one person’s experience of a PLC, they can be implemented by anyone at any time. The important thing to remember is that establishing a PLC to improve teaching practices will ultimately increase student learning and achievement. Take the first small steps to form a PLC in your school today!
Goddard, Y., Goddard, R., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 877–896.
Lortie, D.C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. (2013) Making space: the value of teacher collaboration. Retrieved from http://www.edvestors.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/EdVestors-Making-Space-The-Value-of-Teacher-Collaboration-2014.pdf
Ella Mireles teaches 4th grade. She has a degree in early childhood and elementary education from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Tex., with a specialization in bilingual education.